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Are humpback whales illegally downloading podcasts to share songs?

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  • Are humpback whales illegally downloading podcasts to share songs?

    In a stunning example of animal communication and culture, researchers have described how humpback whale songs sweep across the Pacific in just a few years. The level and rate of change is unparalleled in any other nonhuman animal and thus involves culturally driven change at a vast scale,” wrote researchers led by University of Queensland biologists Ellen Garland and Michael Noad in a study published April 14 in Current Biology. For decades, researchers have studied the elegant, ululating songs of male humpbacks, which are thought to attract females or challenge rival males. In any given year, all the males in a population sing the same song, but the songs change from year to year. The changes are more than incremental; they represent whole new repertoires.

    In the new study, Garland and Noad recorded songs in six Pacific populations between 1998 and 2009. With one exception, the songs started in a population along Australia’s eastern coast, then moved group by group to humpbacks in French Polynesia, some 4,000 miles to the east. One of the songs even made it to the Atlantic. The songs could be carried by males who move between populations, bringing new tunes. Humpbacks could also share songs while mingling on migrations. However it’s happening, the transmission clearly isn’t a function of genetics or coincidence, write the researchers. It’s culture in action.

    Impressive as they are, the findings represent an early stage in the study of cetacean communication. Many whale species sing songs, and all have complex forms of communication; humpbacks just happen to be relatively well-studied. Other researchers have described how dolphins may have names, and likewise sperm whales. That’s to be expected in highly social creatures whose brains are so highly developed, and whose behaviors are so complex, that many researchers align them on the spectrum of personhood with great apes. As scientists spend more time studying cetaceans, and develop more sophisticated methods of listening to them, perhaps someday we’ll understand what the humpbacks’ songs are about.

    The progression of song types in the South Pacific between 1998 and 2008,
    and in six populations from East Australia in the west to French Polynesia in the east.
    Each color corresponds to a particular song

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